Does Early Intervention Make A Difference?

Early intervention can be a lifesaver for babies. The benefits of some early interventions are obvious but bear repeating. The work of pregnancy resource centers and maternity homes have played a role in reducing the abortion rate in Missouri.  In 1990 there were an estimated 19,582 abortions, but by 2012 (latest data available) the number had dropped to 10,824. Babies born prematurely-even as early as 23 weeks of gestation-are being saved by neonatal intensive care units like the one at the Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Care Center.

Early intervention can be enormously helpful for children with developmental delays. Trained therapists can help children catch up with other children their age so they no longer have a learning delay by the time they enter kindergarten. A study commissioned by the U.S. Office of Special Education reported that 32% of infants and toddlers who received early intervention from birth through age two did not require special education once they got to kindergarten (see Final Report of the National Early Intervention Longitudinal Study.)

Early intervention can, in some cases, lessen the impact of more serious disabilities. For example, studies have shown that early interventions can help children with mild to profound hearing loss improve their vocabulary skills and speech production (see the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center-NECTAC-for details). Intervention can also help children with autism spectrum disorder. The Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the University of Missouri-Columbia has made a huge difference in the lives of children and their families (see this moving video of Delaney’s story).

Efforts are also underway to identify what intervention strategies are most effective. The Center on Human Development and Disability at the University of Washington at Seattle employs over 600 faculty members who conduct research as well as offer clinical services and professional training to teachers, therapists, and others providing early intervention. The internationally recognized Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland offers similar services focused on individuals with disorders of the brain, spinal cord, and musculoskeletal system.

As explained in previous updates, children living in impoverished conditions can experience learning delays and behavioral problems. A study by the Brookings Institute on the benefits of early childhood intervention concluded that quality interventions “can close over 70% of the gap between more and less advantaged children in the proportion who end up middle class by middle age.” Several years ago the Rand Corporation surveyed the scientific literature and issued a brief report-Proven Benefits of Early Childhood Interventions-that concluded, “well-designed early childhood interventions have been found to generate a return to society ranging from $1.80 to $17.07 for each dollar spent on the program.”

Earlier this year the journal Science published the results of a 20 year study that employed rigorous research methodologies to answer the question “can early childhood intervention remediate initial disadvantage?” Led by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman of the University of Chicago and Dr. Paul Gertler of the University of California at Berkley, the study focused on children from the poor neighborhoods of Kingston, Jamaica. The researchers enrolled children ages 9-24 months with stunted growth in their study because of the well-documented cognitive delays associated with malnutrition. A control group of stunted children was left alone while several “treatment” groups received early childhood education. In addition, researchers established a comparison group of non-stunted children.

Jamaican health care workers visited the families in the treatment groups every week over a two-year period, encouraging the mothers to interact with the children in ways known to spur cognitive and psychosocial skills. Homemade educational toys were brought to the homes and the mothers were urged to continue with “stimulation” activities between visits. Nutritional supplements were also provided.

The researchers found that the stimulation activities-but not the nutritional interventions-had long-lasting positive effects, as measured when participants were, on average, age 22. The average earnings of members of the treatment group were 42% higher than the control group of stunted children. In addition, the treatment group had caught up in earnings with the non-stunted children. The study concluded “these results imply that stimulation interventions very early in life can compensate for developmental delays and thereby reduce inequality later in life.”

Future updates will discuss intervention programs operating in Missouri.

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